Review: The Matters at Mansfield, or The Crawford Affair, by Carrie Bebris

After Ms. Bebris' last novel, North by Northanger, I wasn't quite sure what to think. The first two novels had been a bit of a thrill, but the third was somewhat limp and predictable. I ordered the fourth installment in the Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mysteries at the beginning of this month and watched for it in the mail frantically. When, after two weeks, it still had not arrived I panicked and started contacting the company to find out what had happened. Happily, it eventually arrived on the 16th. I had it in my hands yesterday and read the entire thing today.

I'm happy to report that it was not only my anticipation, nor only my wealth of time at work today that let me finish the novel in one day. The story is actually quite good. Ms. Bebris has improved her methods and has certainly made the plot, as they say, thicken. Much in the way that Pamela Aidan did in her Mr. Darcy, Gentleman series, Ms. Bebris has breathed life into Anne de Bourgh, making her as real and a vivid character as if we knew her like we know Elizabeth. And she is not the only secondary or tertiary character getting a second chance at life. After all, she ends up marrying Henry Crawford!

Henry Crawford, cad and rake that he is, has always held a soft spot in my heart. I'm sure much of that spot takes root in the fact that, in the Rozema film, Crawford is portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who is beautiful. But also, I found upon reading Mansfield Park for the second time that while he plays the second string with a technical skill akin to Willoughby, Wickham, Frank Churchill and Mr. Elliot, his motives make the music sound so much sweeter. Jane Austen sets it all up for us. We know, before anyone else, that his end will be bittersweet.
      "He was in love, very much in love; and it was a love which,
      operating on an active, sanguine  spirit, of more warmth than
      delicacy, made her affection appear of greater consequence,
      because it was witheld, and determined him to have the glory,
      as well as the felicity, of forcing her to love him."
      (Mansfield Park, Vol. 3, Ch. 2)
Anyone who knows anything knows that Austen's heroines (pale and weak as some of them may be) shall not be forced into love, even by a man who loves as fervently as Henry Crawford.

All of that being said, Ms. Bebris has given us quite the puzzle to work out. She has highlighted his character to such a degree that even someone who despises him must come to like him a little. After all, he seeks to save Anne and succeeds in doing so, though it does not have the ending that he, nor anyone, expected. I enjoyed this novel so very much because it actually kept me guessing. When a man is murdered I was sure I knew who the culprit was, based on the previous books in the series, but I was wrong. Not only that, but I was waiting for the supernatural aspect to hit. In book one, it was some sort of bayou witchcraft, in book two it was a cult, in the third book it lent itself to religion. This novel had no magic, but I mean that in a good way.

I don't mean to say that it was not cohesive, nor that it lacked the proper vivacity. What I mean is that there's literally no magic. Yes, there's a mystery and for a moment I thought for sure there were going to be zombies, but it turned out to be a good old fashioned whodunnit mystery with people killing people. It was like being in the middle of MurderWatch Mystery Theatre, starring Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her soliciter, a mystery guest at the inn, Mr. & Mrs. Darcy, Mr. Crawford, Anne Crawford (neé de Bourgh), Colonel Fitzwilliam, Sir Thomas, and the feeble old Lord Sennex. This was a treat. Great, now this will be in my head.

In parting, because I know many people dislike Henry Crawford, I just want to quote some more Austen, because I feel that in doing so I am doing justice to his character, as Ms. Bebris has in this book.
      "In this world, the penalty is less equal than could be wished; but
      without presuming to look forward to a juster appointment
      hereafter, we may fairly consider a man of sense like Henry
      Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation
      and regret--vexation that must rise sometimes to self-reproach,
      and regret to wretchedness--in having so requited hospitality,
      so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable and
      endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman whom he had
      rationally, as well as passionately loved."
      (Mansfield Park, Vol. 3, Ch. 17)
Yes, that's one sentence.

Next up, What Would Jane Austen Do? by Laurie Brown, a tawdry romance that will probably bore me to tears, and at the same time fulfill my need for lusty fiction.


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